April 16, 2024

The Origin Story of Chess Pie

“Pecan, Chess, Chocolate Chess, Coconut, Lemon, Sweet Potato, Apple Crumble…”

Each time I listed the abundance of pie flavors we were serving, the face across from me morphed into a child-like state of wonder, no matter their age, astonished at the plentiful options before them. 

I watched from the serving table as guests sat, coffee and pie in hand, at tables laden with tablecloths, flowers, and silverware. We had set up tables in the Chinatown Park to feed our neighbors pie and coffee. I was struck by how quickly our guests connected; just as soon as someone sat down, a nearby guest would invite them to share their story. I was not only encouraged by our guests’ willingness to share vulnerable stories, but by our guests’ desire to genuinely listen to one another as well.”

Breadcoin distributor Pastor Armon Nelson shared just how important it is to “open up the table, bring the table out, and have community with the people…not just to pass out coins but to sit there and be able to fellowship and conversate with the people.” 

I learned a lot from this Flash Table. One of those lessons was about Chess Pie. I had never previously heard of Chess Pie but upon my first bite I knew I needed to know more. I asked around the table and learned from my neighbors that this pie originated in the kitchens of enslaved African Americans. 

I reached out to owner of D.E.M. Pies Erika Rice to ask her to share the origin story of her Chess Pies.

Some would believe it came from England, as they referenced a cheese pie, because of the pies texture. I am from the South –  Tennessee – and everyone knows how to make a chess pie, egg custard, or buttermilk pie.

In the times of slavery, the slaves would receive their rations; egg, butter, milk, flour, so forth. The slave made a delicious smelling pie.

The slave owner asked, “What kind of pie is that”, the slave responded, “Oh it’s jes pie.” Due to her southern dialect and speech, the slaveowner though she was saying “chest pie,” because she referenced the items she had in her chest.

You see there was no refrigeration for them at that time, so we (African Americans) had to learn to take what we had (rations) and make good of it. We understood that if we used cornmeal and flour as a binder, it would still keep the pie moist, similar to how cornmeal expands when heated with water or milk. We also understood if we used vinegar as a stabilizer, the sugar, milk, and eggs would not spoil as fast. Similar to how if you don’t have buttermilk for a recipe,  you can use milk and vinegar as a substitute.

Remember without refrigeration, the pie would have to be kept in a chest, and some believe the longer it sits, the better it taste.You would never know there was cornmeal or vinegar in the pie. Again we took what we had in those times and understood the science behind the ingredients to make it last or stretch. Now I would boast, most persons have said the pie doesn’t make it past two days, but it is safe to sit out a day and then refrigerate.

We share this story because it means something to us and we identify and understand this logic of the origin and name. My beautiful 73-year-old mother Dealine Jones or the “D” in D.E.M passed the recipe on to me. We made it our (Erika “E” and Melvin “M”) own with the delicious flavors of Lemon, Chocolate and Coconut.”

Stories, especially those surrounding history, origin, and culture, create connections in ways we may not have even known we needed. I learned at this Breadcoin Flash Table in the Chinatown Park just how special sharing a piece of pie could be.